Why is Hilary Benn declaring war on waste now, when retailers, producers and Wrap have been working on it effectively for years? Ronan Hegarty reports

Hilary Benn's attack on sell-by and display-until labels created a fair few headlines last week, several erroneously claiming the best-before label was under threat.

Yet, behind the headlines, a bigger story was being overlooked. The comments of the Secretary of State for the environment, food and rural affairs were really all about the government striking out against what it sees as the packaging and food waste problem. "It's time for a new war on waste," Benn told Sky News Online. "We need to make better use of everything we produce, from food to packaging."

But the strange thing about this public crusade is that behind the scenes, retailers, food producers and Wrap, the Government's own waste-reduction body, have been working pretty effectively on these issues for a number of years.

Last August, Wrap revealed it had managed to halt the growth of packaging in the UK grocery sector, despite a steady increase in sales volumes. Next year, packaging is expected to start to decrease.

The parties are also working towards sending no waste to landfill by 2015 and, having taken on packaging waste, are turning their attention to the trickier issue of food waste. These factors seem to negate calls for a whole new strategy.

One of the main threads of Defra's new 10-year waste strategy is to make enforcement action against manufacturers of excess and unnecessary packaging easier. However, in its Making the Most of Packaging report it concedes excess packaging is not widespread.

The BRC warns that talk of enforcement is a distraction from the work already under way. "This report rightly recognises that the idea that retailers pointlessly swathe goods in unnecessary packaging is a myth," says BRC director general Stephen Robertson.

"Retailers have made great strides in reducing packaging and working towards sustainable packaging, using less material and more recycling content."

The BRC and FDF say their members are doing what they can and feel more onus should be placed on local authorities."We look forward to working with government to improve the recycling infrastructure and increase capacity in new technologies such as anaerobic digestion," says FDF communications director Julian Hunt.

Reducing food waste is an entirely more tricky task because once a product is bought, retailers and suppliers cannot control how it is used or disposed of. Most of the food and drink sector is backing Wrap's Love Food Hate Waste campaign to cut household food waste by 150,000 tonnes a year.

The BRC says education is key. It is currently working with the major retailers on in-store marketing campaigns to help deliver messages to consumers on how to avoid waste. According to Defra, the average family throws away £600 of perfectly good food - 6.6 tonnes - every year. But don't expect the industry to roll over on the issue of phasing out stock-control dates.

When Hilary Benn consults with industry on display-until and sell-by dates, he will probably find more opposition than he first anticipated. A BRC spokesman vehemently rejects the idea that these labels are marketing gimmicks. "To get rid of these marks would make it harder to avoid selling food past its shelf life, leading to more food poisoning, product recalls and hefty fines for retailers," he says.

This view is supported by the FSA's chief scientist Andrew Wadge. In his blog, he attacks those who branded use-by dates a marketing scam. "If food is past its use-by date, it could make you seriously ill or worse," he says.

When it comes to waste, industry and government see eye-to-eye for the most part. They have been working closely together for years to bring about real change. The feeling in the industry is that perhaps government should focus on these areas of consensus that are bringing about real change, rather than its own gimmicks.
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Use-by dates are mostly found on perishable food and are required under EU law.

Best-before dates are most common on tinned, frozen or dried food. They are a voluntary guide relating to quality.

Use-by/display-until dates were first developed by Marks & Spencer in the 1950s as a tool to ensure staff stocked shelves in the right order. They are still a key stock management tool and also help retailers avoid selling out-of-date stock, which can leave them exposed to hefty fines.